“What did you say?” His breath was powered by the stench of tobacco and his body odor overwhelming.
The girl raged. “He called me a gypsy!”
She was definitely not helpful, and suddenly the thought of her being beautiful seemed like a horrible flytrap. The crowd parted and gave the two a little room. Fifty customers had just created the perfect space for a very unfair prize fight.
A woman, with a very heavy Cockney accent,
in the background piped in, “Ee called ‘er a Gypsy”.
A man retorted, from the other side of the crowd, with a similar accent. “Well she is a gypsy, look at her!”
The crowd laughed.
The Gypsy King looked up and scanned the crowd for the owners of the last two comments.
The crowd made an audible “oooow” under their breath.
The Gypsy King stepped back just far enough to reveal his left hand pulling a massive knife, half from its sheath. His voice rumbled.
“Never. Never. Talk to her, again. Go!”
He returned the knife to its sheath.
Nigel could not go fast enough.
That night, before the main show, Nigel was taking tickets and got to relive the humiliation as he heard occasional whispers from the guests recounting the tale of his near demise as they recognized him.
“That’s the kid”.
“Yeah, “That’s the KID.”
He thought, “Still a child on the outside to the world’s eyes.”
The wound was still fresh, but being called a kid, after the week he had, was infuriatingly humiliating. Today, he would be just a ticket taker. No hellos. No welcomes. No have a great time at the show.
One of the few routine tasks that became Nigel’s alone, was the daily with cleaning the fun house mirrors. These greeted the waiting line as they entered the freak show. It was an odd venue. It was a large long truck trailer, similar in size to the tent truck. It crossed the very back of the property and acted as the back stop of the entire midway. When traveling, it contained all of the animal pens and fencing corrals. It was set up with wooden stairs at the cab end of the truck. The exit was at the back of the container with descending stairs that bottomed out about thirty-five feet from the Major’s caravan. It was not unusual for drunk patrons to come crashing down the slippery stair in the damp climate so, several bales of straw were always at the bottom to break the fall. And, they were used multiple times a day.
The short hall of fun mirrors was at the entrance. This allowed for a distraction as people entering the freak show would be compelled to stop and gaze at themselves, distorted before entering the truck trailer. The self-indulgent experience slowed traffic enough for people to gaze at their own potential deformity before gazing at the unfortunate people whose sole job was to simply sit there and be themselves in pens, like animals at the county fair.
It was the second largest attraction, after the circus itself. People would pay half as much to walk through that trailer. Everybody bought a ticket. The idea that it started with “fun mirrors” somehow seemed cruel to Nigel. It seemed a primer for the painful comments that where hurled by the crowds at these people.
The unfortunate thing about cleaning the fun mirrors was there was always a line waiting to get in all day. So, first he had to push through the crowd and up the stairs. Then he had to clean them while drunken fools were using them. Clean a mirror and someone would inevitably streak their hand across it or spit on it, right in front of you. It was a five minute job that usually took twenty minutes.
The real travesty for Nigel was, however, once clean, you could not exit the way you entered because of the crowd. You had to walk through the “show” to get out. These six “freaks” were the first people Nigel had learned the names of at the whole place.
First, there was Claire. She had a beautiful dark mane of hair and china doll-like skin which was painted white with bright red lipstick to accentuate her features. They claimed she weighed four-hundred pounds and she probably did. She had been dubbed the Great E-Claire by the circus. It was abhorrently cruel and fitting of show business at the same time. Nigel would simply say “Hi Claire” as he passed. She’d respond in kind as the prospecting crowds would make jokes about what she ate and ask her questions which she would answer with a smile.
“What DO YOU eat?”, Was a common question from the crowds.
She’d smile, laugh and say, “Anything I can get my ‘ands on. Come ere love’.
She’d reach out as if she might gobble them up. They’d laugh…but they’d leave.
Second, were Timmy and Jimmy. Timmy was an old midget. He had been a clown for years, but had been hurt when his leg was crushed by falling in front of the clown taxicab and getting run over. His claim to fame was being the shortest man in the world which was only compounded by the effect of standing next to Jimmy who claimed to be the tallest. Timmy came up to Jimmy’s thigh.
Jimmy was billed as the seven-foot tall man. When they weren’t standing around for gawkers, they worked in the mess tent doing the dishes before and after shows. A simple greeting and wave by Nigel was all he afforded as he slipped past them.
Next, was “The Witch Doctor of New Guinea”. This was, perhaps, the dumbest thing in the entire circus. The witch doctor was an African man who was missing his tongue. Nigel had not quite figured out how or why that happened. He certainly had not been in a position to ask.
What he did know was this fifty something year old man was definitely not a witch doctor. He was in a costume with bones, a boars teeth neckless, feathers, face paint and a loin cloth. His entire act was sitting and staring at the guests then, spontaneously diving towards the women causing them to scream. The lack of a tongue in his mouth did make his scream distinct and disturbing. Unfortunately, it worked every time. This meant, in the confines of this truck trailer, there was the constant screaming of the witch doctor with the equally piercing retort of women and children.
Finally, the last act was the highlight which would keep people talking for days, The Sisters Siam. These East Indian women were born attached near their shoulder blade and spine. They sat sideways, dressed in traditional saris so the wraps would reveal that they were actually attached and, it was not a fake. The only thing fraudulent was that they were not from Siam, but that was of no concern for the masses. People said the cruelest things and asked awful questions. The only solace Nigel took was, they definitely did not speak English. He discovered from tall Jimmy that their names were Nita and Rita which were the only words Nigel spoke as he passed them, smiling and nodding. They never spoke, but always returned his smiles with a nod.
Nigel’s view was, these people were different by the crowd’s definition yet, in reality, not different at all. They were normal people, genetically pre-dispositioned to stand out from the crowd and their existence had become reliant on receiving judgement and abuse from the outside world.
Nigel reflected upon his short moment of fame. The attack of the Gypsy King was all the fame he ever wanted to experience. The only benefit of being “a freak” was a lower workload than the rest.
After the two-week run was completed, Sunday night came. The final circus show went off like every other show. Upon finishing his rounds, he headed back to the Major’s caravan to discover what his role in the move to the next encampment would involve. He desperately wanted to learn to drive and was hoping he could make a request to ride in one of the truck cabs.
He found the Major sitting on an inverted bucket in front of his caravan. The man was coughing violently while holding his small lit cigar in his left hand.
“Are you alright?” Nigel asked.
In the middle of hacking, the Major waved him to sit on another bucket across from him. He spoke through coughs and gasps.
The Major cleared his throat and lungs in one last gasp, a resounding hack. He spit out a bright red glob of phlegm which trailed to the ground.
“Wow, are you sure?” Nigel pressed.
The reply came, “I’m positive. Tomorrow, tomorrow morning you are going to London with me.”
“Really?” Nigel smiled.
He had never been to London. He had never been on a train.
“Yes, I need you to do something there with me.” He said.
. “Well, what?”
“Just be ready at six.”
“Yes sir! Anything else?”
The Major was good with directives and always short on explanation. Nigel had learned by now, when the Major spoke, you hopped.
In late June, the sun cast a very early light at about five-thirty which slowly illuminated the sky. This morning was beautiful as pinks and blues streaked above in a few high altitude misty clouds which reminded Nigel of brushstrokes on a canvas. In the distance, Nigel saw a large flock of sheep on the hillside.
His sleep had been terrible in the cab of the truck. He was cold, even wearing his pants. His father’s wool pants were pulled over them. He used his old sweater as a blanket. Beyond the cold, the excitement of being on a train and the anticipation of seeing London did not help. Nigel had packed overnight provisions in his canvas bag but, left the duffel.
The Major emerged at six a.m. on the dot, just as the sun broke over the horizon. Nigel noticed sheep in the far distance producing shadows twenty times their length stretching back to him.
The Major, wearing an old British officer’s field coat, wore a military issue wool sweater underneath. For the first time, he looked like and actual Major in the army. His cheeks were clean shaven, his nicotine stained handlebar mustache pressed and rolled. He reminded Nigel of images of Teddy Roosevelt. He carried with him a large leather satchel, similar to Dr. Baas’ medical bag, but larger. It clearly had weight in it. Money.
They stopped by the beer garden on their way out and grabbed a stale pastry with sausage inside.
As they walked into town they passed a sign which said Wilmslow.
“Was this possible that, they were in Wilmslow?” Nigel thought.
It made no sense, as the convoy had taken hours to make its way there, yet Wilmslow was not that far from Chinley, where he lived. He could have ridden a bike there in about 2 hours.
As they walked on, Nigel realized they were, in fact, in Wilmslow. He broke the silence.
“Do you make the circus route follow the train line?”
The Major coughed and replied, “Yes. You have to. We need mail service and supplies, And, when the season is over, which can happen at any time, we can load all the gear up and move it to storage.”
Nigel was surprised. “Season? You don’t run the carnival all year?”
The Major laughed. “Of course not, you fool. This is England. Would you go to the fair in December?”
He had a point. It was miserable here for a carnival about six months out of the year.
The Major continued, “We start in Sheffield and move in a circle. Shrewsbury. Hereford. Newport. Swindon. Shenfield. Ipswich. Norwich. Peterboorough. Doncaster. That’s the season.”
He paused and looked at Nigel. “Why would I increase the costs to go further? We pack it up in Leeds in a warehouse from late October to early May. Then start over.”
Nigel had visions of the circus traveling the world. He realized that the Major was bringing the world to a very small audience yet, it felt so exotic. The train station was just ahead. As they walked to the ticket booth the Major stepped forward and bought three round trip tickets.
“I need a salon car. Two tickets for me and one for the boy.”
He nodded at the ticket agent behind the glass.
“He’s twelve?” The agent inquired.
The Major smiled a commanding quick smile. The ticket agent looked over his glasses. It was clear he did not believe the rouse, but had no desire to buck the military man and his sharp tone.
“Two pounds-fifty for you, one for your son.” He sneered.
Nigel was confused. “Who’s the other ticket for?”
(25) There’s no need to ever make the same mistake the same way twice.
(26) Make a mistake and it will get talked about so. Apologize fast and be seen apologizing.
(27) Once captivated and audience will follow you for a bit. The folks walk out of the circus in the parade under the assumption “something next is coming”. That is short-lived but creates opportunity to further delight and do business. So surprise and delight your way into doubling revenue.
(28) Celebrities are freaks…meaning they were born a certain way or developed a talent. Everyone treats them horribly and takes advantage of them. They stand incredible rude public ridicule you cannot imagine. Treat them like normal people and you have a chance but it is very difficult for them to make friends and trust people.
(29) If you really wish to be famous. Think twice.
(30) Whomever is counting the money, is probably in charge.
(31) Businesses can be seasonal. Eliminate every cost or go dark if you need to when business drops off. We have had numerous television products that just work November to May. If we ran them all year we’d go broke. Be smart not greedy.